Guantanamo ‘a living grave’ for dozens cleared to leave

September 11, 2014

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Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. — Reuters File Photo
Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. — Reuters File Photo

WASHINGTON: After more than a decade held without charges, dozens of Guantanamo detainees ought to have sight of freedom, but hard-won deals for their release are languishing awaiting a final Pentagon signature.

Some 79 of the 149 prisoners still incarcerated at the US military base in Guantanamo Bay, southern Cuba, have been approved for transfer after being assessed as posing no security risk to the United States.

Most of them were told as long ago as 2009 or 2010 that they would face no charges and were now eligible to be either sent home or to a third host nation.

Yet they are still waiting.

In recent months, US officials have nailed down deals which could see the fairly swift release of a couple of dozen detainees from different countries, administration sources confirmed to AFP, declining to go into any detail.

In June, a senior official had predicted there would be “substantial progress” this year towards President Barack Obama’s avowed aim of closing the costly and politically toxic operation.

But so far this year only one prisoner approved for release has been freed, and there is a growing sense of frustration.

“Continued delay on closing Guantanamo is unacceptable, whether it is from roadblocks put up by some in Congress or from some in the administration, “Senator Dianne Feinstein told AFP.

Videos of the beheading of two American journalists, forced by their jihadist captors to wear orange jumpsuits like those used in US jails, are a grim reminder that Guantanamo remains a hated symbol of the Bush-era “war of terror” launched in the wake of the 2001 attacks.

Taliban swap fallout

Yet what should have been relatively straight-forward transfers have become bogged down, in part due to the political uproar in June over the swap of five top Taliban officials — who had been due to remain behind bars — for captured American soldier Bowe Bergdahl.

Administration sources, who requested anonymity because the dossier is so sensitive, said many of the new transfer deals had won a green light from five of the six government agencies involved.

Under the law, Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel has to give final approval to every transfer.

Pentagon sources denied he was dragging his feet, saying every case needed proper and thorough review to ensure the right conditions are in place.

And there have been reports some former Guantanamo detainees have returned to the extremist cause.

Time running out

Among those waiting to step back into lives frozen for over a decade are four Afghans and a Mauritanian national.

Lawyers for 44-year-old Mauritanian Ahmed Abdel Aziz say he was swept up in a US bounty, arrested by Pakistani authorities in June 2002 when, he alleges, money exchanged hands for his capture.

Aziz has denied being an Al Qaeda member and is eager to be reunited with his wife, who was pregnant when he was detained, and the young son he has never met.

There are only “so many formative years left and he wants to spend those years with his son,” said his lawyer Anna Holland Edwards. “He often talks not about living in Guantanamo, but of living in a grave.”

Apart from his wife and son, there is an apartment, a job and a social network awaiting Aziz whenever he finally flies back to Mauritania.

“Waiting for a signature is part of it,” confirmed Holland Edwards, adding her client had never faced any charges.

Ugly stain

A separate move to transfer six men to Uruguay, reported to include four Syrians, a Tunisian and a Palestinian, has been given the go-ahead by all six US agencies, and is expected to be concluded later this year.

Pentagon officials would not discuss individual cases, but said they are “working diligently” to transfer detainees.

“We take a ‘look before you leap’ approach to each detainee transfer and focus on ensuring security and assuring human rights with our partner nations,” said Lieutenant Colonel Myles Caggins, a spokesman for the defence department for detainee policy.

His assurances were echoed at the state department by Ian Moss, spokesman for the special envoy to Guantanamo, Cliff Sloan.

The US “is absolutely committed” to the jail’s closure, Moss said, adding “we are actively working to transfer each of the 79 detainees approved for transfer.”

But Feinstein said: “It is far past time to close Guantanamo, an ugly stain on the history of the United States.” “Every day it is open, we weaken our national security by emboldening extremists, we isolate ourselves internationally and we waste taxpayer money.”—AFP

Published in Dawn, September 11th, 2014